Buzz about the Sahara forest scheme

30 Sep 2009

A lot of people were intrigued by the idea of planting a forest across the Sahara Desert, as crazy as the idea sounds. Following on from my news story, Discover Magazine covered it in one of their blogs, Popular Science’s blog covered it too.

Oliver Morton—former head of news and features at Nature, and author of Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet, covered it on his blog, Heliophage. (His post is far longer and more detailed than my story, and definitely worth a read.)

800px-Sahara_dust_plume_Nov_1998I told Oliver about how a couple of my regular outlets weren’t interested in this story, but finally I was able to interest Science. ”I think its fascinating that this is still a story that can’t be sold,” he said. “Don’t they get it? and more to the point, can’t they just see that thinking this way is such fun!”

It’s not only fun, it’s mind boggling. I never realized that you could actually see huge plumes of dust blowing out over the ocean, as in the photo above, or here and here. It nourishes sea life in the ocean, as I mentioned in my news story. But according to this article in the Guardian, the dust also makes its way all the way to South America, where it helps fertilize the Amazonian forests. So here’s a big catch with the idea of planting forests on the Sahara: Even if the trees don’t sit right on top of the main sources of Saharan dust, the extra rainfall the trees would bring could wet down the dust and keep it from flying around.

So the upshot is that planting forests in the Sahara could make it harder for trees to grow in the Amazon! This is just one of the big hurdles for this terraforming idea. But I’m still intrigued by it. I’m getting increasingly pessimistic that people will do much to tackle climate change before it gets really bad, and I think that in the most realistic best-case scenario, we’ll finally decide we have to through every trick in the book at the problem. For more on that, see another article of mine, “5 Last-Ditch Schemes to Avert Warming Disaster.”

Photo credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, via WikiMedia Commons


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »